Warriors, I really, really wanted to open this follow-up post with a triumphant I WON!!, and we could all celebrate our various accomplishments with a round of metaphorical champagne and dim sum.
(Yeah, my cravings got pretty eclectic in the last week.)
But I didn’t win.
Technically, I didn’t lose, either. When the referee gathered all us fighters and coaches together — and you better believe that was one cramped, sweaty, adrenaline-laced room — he told us that there would be no judges. Unless there was a knockout, each fight would end in a draw. Both fighters’ hands would be raised: no winner, no loser. It was the first time any of us had ever heard of such a thing, and I have to admit, it was a relief — but I’m getting ahead of myself. That wasn’t the first thing that happened.
For me, as with so many other fighters, the most stressful part of the whole ordeal wasn’t actually stepping in the ring: it was stepping on the scale. Most fight cards will have fighters weigh in the night before, which might seem counterintuitive until you realize that most fighters will have starved and dehydrated themselves completely for the previous 24-48 hours in order to make weight. Really, it’s incredible how some fighters manipulate the water levels in their body to make weight: I read that Anderson Silva cuts as much as thirty pounds of water weight the week before a fight.
So you can see why a night-before weigh-in is handy: you get twenty-four hours to refuel and re-hydrate. Even with the cushion of a day, there’s no denying that weight cuts can and will affect your performance: you might be sluggish, easily tired, or weaker than usual.
We weighed in at 3pm the day of.
Look, I won’t say that my cut week wasn’t successful, but do not try this. I’m serious. It may sound like a miracle cure, losing ten to fifteen pounds in a week, but that weight is nothing but water, and not only is it unhealthy to lose, it comes back almost instantly. There was a moment at the Y when, between rounds in the sauna and the hot tub at the pool, I ran into a woman about my age in the locker room. She glanced at me in my two-piece suit, and said: “How long have you been working out? Because you’re about my size, and I want to look about like that.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her it was an illusion. To give you all an impression of how fleeting that weight loss really was, between weigh-in at 3pm on Saturday afternoon and when I stepped on my home scale at 7am on Monday, I had put back on twelve pounds.
In sum, you’re weak and dopey from a weight cut that you might not even be sure worked well enough, when you step on the scale. I actually weighed in a pound over what I was supposed to be, but you get a pound leeway, so I made it. By the skin of my teeth – which I would have scraped off, if I’d thought that would help, because weight cuts, terrible as they are, can still give you the advantage. See, I’m five foot eight inches, so by fighting at 145 pounds, I’m likely to be at least a few inches taller than my opponent, which means I get range, and she doesn’t.
And, of course, if you don’t make weight, you don’t fight.
You see it all the time in live-streamings of weigh-ins, or in interviews: fighters celebrate when they make weight, because it means all their hard work won’t be tossed out thanks to a few measly pounds. It’s stressful and exhausting, and seeing the needed number on the scale when I stepped onto it was like being able to breathe for the first time all week.
I ate. I drank water. I chugged two giant bottles of Gatorade. I felt good, and relaxed, and ready. And then, a little over five hours later, I walked out to the ring wearing my mongkol — a traditional headband worn for luck and out of respect to your gym, trainer, teammates, and family — and prajioud — the armband I’d been given when I passed my Level One test — as the announcer called my name and a crowd of something like three hundred people cheered.
I didn’t see them, hear them, or notice them. We’d decided to “seal the ring” before my fight, and I wanted to concentrate on getting it right. Like the mongkol and prajioud, sealing the ring is a traditional part of the sport, and it serves a number of purposes: through it, you honor your kru, your family, your teammates, and your opponent while simultaneously focusing yourself. By tracing your glove along the ropes, you’re metaphorically sealing the ring from outside influences, creating a bubble in which exists nothing but you, your training, your opponent, and the next seven and a half minutes.
Even with all my training, and every attempt I’d made to wrap my head around what I was doing, sealing that ring was the first time I ever truly felt like a fighter.
My opponent and I went to our corners, my kru put on the headgear I was using and stuck my mouthguard in; the bell rang, and I stepped into the strangest six minutes of my life.
Like I said, I didn’t win. In fact, when the bell rang for the end of the first round, I was absolutely convinced I’d lost. Not that I was losing: that I’d lost. She seemed better, stronger, faster than me. I was weak from an intense weight cut, and she was fighting at her natural weight. (She had also, it turned out later, been training at least a year longer than we’d previously been told.)
I sat in the corner and stared at my kru as he told me I was doing great, to just do what I do. To keep throwing, and to keep coming forward. He told me to get her in the clinch and throw knees, and I started the second round with that plan in mind. I got her, it worked – and then she got away.
The rest of the fight is a little fuzzy. Both she and I tired out halfway through the second round, and neither of us were throwing much. I could hear my kru yelling, but it was like I’d forgotten everything he’d ever taught me: I couldn’t figure out how to get around her. My confidence was shaken, fractured, scattered.
(Watching the video later, it was clear to me that if I’d just bulled forward, I’d have gotten the upper hand. Lesson learned!)
Round two ended. Round three began and ended abruptly with less than ten seconds left, when it was clear that my nose – clocked solidly moments before – wasn’t going to stop bleeding anytime soon. (In fact, it kept going for the better part of an hour, and again for another half hour or so later that night. It was gross.)
The crowd cheered. The ref got us and raised both our hands. My opponent and I slapped backs and congratulated each other, and then I was out, pushing through the crowd, making for the locker room, nearly blinded by disappointment and frustration at myself. Thankfully the towel hid most of the angry tears in my eyes, but there was no hiding them from my kru or teammates. There was a buzz of people around me, including a nurse who made sure my nose was okay – it is, though still sore – and that I could answer questions I asked myself: what was my name? Where was I? Did I hurt anywhere?
I wanted her to leave me alone. I wanted everyone to leave me alone. All I wanted to do was berate myself.
My kru sat me down. My teammates sat next to me, joking to cheer me up. Nick showed me a picture of his (broken) nose from his most recent fight and pointed out that I was still prettier than him. My kru kept saying I’d done a great job, even though I felt it had to be a lie. I looked at him over the towel, blinking back tears, to say sorry, I’m sorry. I hadn’t wanted to disappoint him. I’d worked so hard.
He looked me straight in the eye and said: “Don’t you dare be sorry.”
Don’t be sorry. Be proud, he said. Hold your head up high. The first one’s over, and you did great. I’m so proud of you, he said. I’m proud of you.
It made me want to cry even more.
So now? I’ve watched the video of my fight. It’s really amazing, the difference between what I thought was happening and what was actually there: though I felt out-matched, the fight was fairly even. Though I felt I was losing, I was actually holding my own, and more than. I didn’t back down. I didn’t quit.
I received a message on Facebook the next morning from my opponent’s coach:
It was a great fight. Thank you, and much respect to you tonight, you have an awesome heart.
Now, I can take what I’ve learned and work harder to prepare for the next one, because oh, yes, there will be a next one. As hard as we went in sparring, it was nothing like the real thing. A fight is pure brutality. It’s fast and unforgiving. You claw out every single inch and keep taking them, whether the other person wants to give them up or not. There is time, surprisingly, for thought, but not much. Precision is key. And don’t you ever give in and just take it.
I find it difficult to say I’m proud of myself, but here it goes: I’m proud I got in that ring. I’m proud that I didn’t back down, even when I thought I was beaten. I’m proud that I trained so hard and poured so much of myself into it. A year ago, I could never have done what I did that night. Win, lose, or draw: I walked into the ring. I didn’t run away. I tried my best.My pride can be bruised and I can recover from it just like any other. Muay Thai isn’t about winning or losing: it’s about humility, respect, and never giving in.
So here’s to my first fight, and here’s to you, out there, doing your best. Here’s to our accomplishments, and our fallbacks, and the way we get back up again, because we have a fighter’s heart.
Here’s to round two.